DUBLIN — What a trip.
I’m sitting in the airport in Dublin after a whirlwind tour that included a fabulous meal at a Michelin-starred in this city; a visit to Dublin’s most famous brewery where we learned how to pour a perfect pint of Guinness (and drank same); a visit to the last remaining water-powered grain mill in Ireland; one of the largest strawberry farms in the country; a livestock ranch with cattle destined for Raglan Road, the Irish pub in Downtown Disney (the meat anyway, if not the hoof); a cooking class with master chef Kevin Dundon (who is undoubtedly the most famous chef in Ireland); visited the oldest working lighthouse in the world and toured a hokum-laden “haunted mansion” (why should America have the only tourist traps?); went fishing on the Irish Sea, caught a cod, and cleaned, filleted, cooked and ate same; and experienced the grandeur and Irish hospitality of Dunbrody Country House in County Wexford, the hotel, cooking school and, not insignificantly, local pub operated by Dundon and his wife, Catherine. It was a lot to pack into four days and it was all wonderful (well, except for the haunted mansion, and I’ll tell you about that some other time).
Note: I was a guest of Raglan Road, which organized the trip for the winners of the Raglan Road Master Chef Cooking Contest.
For the contest, which is part of the pub’s 10th anniversary celebrabtion, Dundon and his associates at Raglan invited contestants to submit a short video stating what they would propose for a three-course dinner for Raglan Road’s anniversary in October. From the submitted videos, Dundon selected five and invited them to travel to Ireland to experience the culture and the food, and to join him for a couple of sessions at his Cookery School at Dunbrody to refine their recipes and their skills.
The winners — or semifinalists, if you will, because the ultimate winner will be named at the October dinner, though, come on, a free trip to Ireland has to feel like winning, right? — included three Central Floridians, Aaron Van Swearingen, Colleen Kerney, and Janice Epaillard, and two out of staters, Heather McBroom Walker of Scottsdale and Linda Rohr of Darien, Connecticut. (Click on their names to see their YouTube video submissions.)
Along with four other online media representatives, including Julius Mayo of Droolius, Rachelle Lucas of The Travel Bite, Brooke Buckner Fehr of Disney Food Blog, and Pam Brandon of Disney Parks Blog and Edible Orlando (and one of our own Divas of Dish), we flew as a group from Orlando International Airport on Thursday, arriving in Dublin on Friday morning. I’ll tell you about the Guinness Storehouse tour and the dinner a l’Ecrivain on another occasion. The real raison de trip began with the next day’s events.
Saturday morning we motored down to County Wexford but made a couple of stops along the way. The first was at Ballyminane Mills, the only remaining water-powered mill in Ireland, located well off anything that might be considered a main road in Ballindaggin, just outside Enniscorthy. The mill, which is fed by the River Urrin, has been in existence since 1790 and has been in the Murphy family for 200 years. John Murphy gave us a tutorial on the intricacies of the water mill and its grind shafts, and how they produce several tons of Uncle Aidan’s Authentic Stone Ground Flour.
(Photos above of large waterwheel and Uncle Aidan from Aaron Van Swearingen)
A special treat was meeting Uncle Aidan himself, a man in his 80s who still navigates the narrow ladders between the loft, where the wheat comes in, and the room that holds the grinding apparatus below. It was a fascinating look at an antique operation, and the family couldn’t have been more welcoming to us (including allowing all of us to trundle upstairs in their home to use the only facilities in the place). They also treated us to some crazy good scones made with the flour.
And let me just say a little more about the hospitality we were afforded during our visit. I can’t remember visiting a more welcoming country and experiencing the warmth of so many people. The standard greeting to us was “You’re very welcome here,” and we felt it.
That was also true at Danescastle Fruit Farm, where we were greeted by the Mernagh family for a tour of their very large strawberry farm. Danescastle is sort of a mini Plant City, with thousands of strawberry plants, all in greenhouses or under plastic “tunnels,” and all of them raised off of the ground. Situated throughout the facility were small cardboard boxes filled with bees to aid in the pollination of the plants — the bees-in-a-box come from Slovenia, John Mernagh sr. told us.
Afterward Margaret Mernagh treated us to some strawberries with clotted cream. The taste difference from these Irish berries and many of the ones sold in America was stunning. So fresh tasting and sweet and full of strawberry characteristics. One variety had a pearlike flavor that was quite satisfying.
Our day wasn’t finished. We made one final stop, at ABP Meat, where rancher Paddy Murphy introduced us to the cattle that will soon be available at Raglan Road. The import ban on Irish beef was recently lifted by the U.S. government, but Irish beef will be rare in America. So far, it is available only in the Boston area and at Raglan Road. The grass-fed beef has a distinct flavor that will be noticeable to meat lovers.
The cattle ranch was very close to Dunbrody Country House, a grand old estate that was once a prime minister’s hunting lodge. After checking into our rooms and getting cleaned up a bit, we met for dinner in one of the elegant private dining rooms. But the contestants were already thinking about the next morning when they would meet in Dundon’s Cookery School to learn what they would be cooking for the anniversary dinner.
To be continued…